A Walk Among the Ruins at Mihintale
I walk through the ruins, as the path beckons me…
As I feel the heartbeat of the ruins, and hear the riddles they whisper,
I witness the story of a long lost civilization….
This is the story of Mihintale or Chethiya pabbatha;
A place that bears an uncountable number of secrets,
Only revealed to those who are willing to listen.
Walk with me, and I will tell you a tale that has been long lost in time.
The jungle tide was invading this once glorious monastery of Mihintale where Arhat Mainda resided. The honour of Sri Lanka becoming the centre of Theravada, no doubt goes to Arhat Mahinda.
As I was walking among the ruins I was lost in thought. I was trying to visualise how this place would have looked like back then. Let us take a voyage to the past, through the ruins and find out about Mihintale.
The name suggests its deep antiquity
There are three names for Mihintale. They are, i. Missaka pabbata, ii. Cetiya pabbata, iii. Mihintalawa.
Missaka means forest or grove in Sanskrit. According to Vedic beliefs, god Indra’s garden, the Nanda-vana is also called Misraka. Mahavamsa and Deepavams states that King Tissa organized a water festival to his subjects at Anuradhpaura, and he went to Missaka pabbata. Water sports are a feature of festivals held in honour of the rain god. Also, Mahavamsa says the name of the month as Jettha. Jyeshtha or Jyēṣṭha is the third month of the Hindu calendar. It is also the month that reaches the high summer and a number of festivals are held in honour various gods related to climate. Pabbatas or rocks are associated with rain gods in ancient Sinhalese culture. The Naga pokuna at Mihintale is a pond that has a huge Cobra carved on the rock. Nagas are always associated with rain, water, and prosperity in Sinhalese arts and mythology.
Cetiya Pabbata, The Mountain of stupas
There are a large number of stupas at Mihintale. Therefore, it was called the mountain of stupas. King Tissa renamed Missaka pabbata as Cetiya pabbata as per a tribute to Arhat Mahinda, as his birthplace was also called as Cetiyagiri.
Mihintalawa, The plain of Mahinda
It is a coincident that the name of Arhat Mahinda or Mahendra in Sanskrit, bears the same name of the rain god who was worshiped at this place. Mahendra is another name for Indra, the god dominating the sky and the god who controls rain and climate.
Situated about eight miles east of Anuradhapura, Mihintale consists of four mountains. They are, 1. Mihintale Kanda, 2. Atvehera kanda, 3. Anaikutti kanda. 4. Rajagirilena kanda. Each mountain is about one thousand feet high and the four mountains together cover and area of about 450 acres.
H.C.P.Bell (1890 – 1912) was the first to start work at Mihintale in 1891, followed by A.M.Hocart (1922 – 1927). After that it was archaeologist and historian Professor Senarat Paranavitana who restored ancient Mihintale.
Bell had to face many objections by the Mihintale Buddhist Society and was harshly rebuked by Walisinghe Harischandra. Worsening the situation, the British government took over Mihintale as barren land under the Waste Land Ordinance in 1911. Strong protests rose against this, and they sent an appeal to the Colombo Secretary in England and as a result pending a settlement with the Mihintale temple authorities the Archaeological Commissioner was instructed by the Governor to defer further excavations.
However due to many objections, the excavation and conservation work by the Archaeological Department headed by Hocart was able to start only in 1922. What we see today at Mihintale is the result of the dedication and hard work of Professor Senarat Paranavitana. Today, it is the responsibility of the Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka to maintain and look after this historic site of 145 acres.
A Maha awasa or a Great monastery should consist a hospital within its premises. We can witness the ruins of a large hospital or Vejjasala at Mihintale and as the chronicle says, this was built by King Sena II, 9th century AD. As Professor Anuradha Seneviratna says in his scholarly work The Dawn of a Civilization, Mihintale, ‘but it is certain that there existed a hospital earlier than the present one in ruins.’
‘So we may reasonably assume that the monks residing at Mihintale assisted the physicians in the hospital to look after sick monks. The Mihintale slab inscription refers to a puhunda vedek meaning, a leech doctor and a mandovuva- probably an Orthopaedic doctor and the wages and other benefits they should receive’, the professor further explains.
Among the artefacts discovered here are a few clay wares and blue colour jars of Persian origin. Also a number of surgical equipment were discovered through excavations.
Ruins seen close to the hospital is similar to monastic buildings found in Anuradhapura. These ruins consists of several pasadas, pirivena, a prakara or a boundary wall, toilets, and a pond.
Archaeological excavations at Kantaka cetiya was started in 1935 by Professor Senarat Paranavitana. The ruined stupa mound was known as Kiribandapavu dagaba, Kiribath vehera or the Giribanda seya by the locals. But a 1st century AD inscription found at this place revealed the original name as Kataka Ceta.
This stupa dates from the reign of Lanjathissa who reigned about 119 to 109 B.C. The four frontispieces facing the four directions of the stupa was called as the wahalkada or ayakas.. According to prof. Paranavitana, these carvings are the earliest specimens of Sinhalese plastic art that we now possess.
The ancient stairway
The ancient pathway to the summit of the mountain is an essential part of Mihintale which gives a unique distinction to the beauty of this place. A walk under the shade of Araliya trees, breathing the fresh air filled with the pleasant smell of these flowers is a divine experience.
There are 1840 steps from the foot of the mountain up to the mada maluwa. The second and third stages of the steps reaches up to the terrace of the Maha seya.
Sixty eight caves
It is said that King Devanampiya Tissa constructed sixty eight rock-cells at Mihintale for Arhat Mahinda and the rest of the monks. The cave inscriptions carved above the drip ledges of these caves mentions the offerings made by King Tissa, his Queen consort, brother and sister in law and members of the royal family, officers and others. These rock cells were the earliest dwellings of Buddhist monks, who originally led simple and detached life styles.
The first time I saw the Lion pond or the Sinha pokuna as a child in 1994, I was captivated by its carvings and the creativity. The carving of the energetic life-sized standing lion and how water was supposed to come through the lion’s mouth was creativity at its best. “The attractive and artistic Lion Pond which is a unique sculptural piece…”, says professor Seneviratna. It was not only me or Professor Anuradha Seneviratna was attracted by this wonderful monolith, but also the first scholar to study this place, H.C.P.Bell. He writes in 1914, “There is probably no more handsome specimen of bold artistic work of its kind in granite to be found in Ceylon than this finely conceived bit of sculpture…. It stands as the tour de force of the stone-mason.”
Water is supplied to the pond through a channel from Naga pokuna. This can be identified as an open air bath rather than a pond, used by the monks.
The alms hall or the dana salava is a rectangular building with the main entrance on the west side. A veranda, rooms, kitchen, store rooms, cisterns and covered drains can be seen today. Clay pipes are laid in the ground. There are two huge granite boats, called as the kanda oruwa and the bath oruwa.
The inscription of Mahinda IV provides some valuable information about the alms hall and how it functioned then. The monks were given kanda and boiled rice for breakfast. There were two hundred odd servants assigned to work at the refectory and twelve servants did the cooking.
Sannipatha salava or the assembly hall
This is the place where the monks met to discuss matters of common interest pertaining to the rules of discipline administration. The assembly hall is situated in a central place in the huge monastic complex where monks could meet at short notice. This building has no rooms. And no enclosing walls.
Archaeologists believe that this square building had an upper storey build in wood, while the ground floor was an image house and the upper floor was the relic chamber.
It is also quite evident from the inscription of King Mahinda that this relic house had enjoyed a certain prestige in the 10th century.
A ruined stupa
“The very name of this once imposing monument has been forgotten. The ravages of time and man had reduced it to a mould hardly to be distinguished from the hill itself and, with dense jungle growth. Its very existence was hitherto unsuspected by the average visitor to the place.” says professor Paranavitana. The relic chamber or the Dhatu garba of this stupa was visible and now being kept in the museum. According to professor Paranavitana the paintings inside the relic chamber belongs to the 8th century AD.
It is believed that Buddha spent some time seated in meditation during his third visit to Sri Lanka, at this location. This stupa was built by Mahadatika Mahanaga, early 1st century AD. King Kanitta Tissa, 2nd century AD built the Vatadage or cetiya ghara to this stupa.
This is believed to be the place where arhat Mahinda and his followers first stood and met the King. The places where the king and Arhat mahinda stood is now covered with a chandrakantha pasana or moonstone and a golden railing.
This is the cave where arhat Mahinda spent the rest of his life. This is a fine example of the simple life style a true Buddhist Bhikku should follow, detached from worldly pleasures and comforts.
This is the largest stupa at Mihintale built by King Mahadatika Mahanaga, 1st century AD. It is believed that Buddha’s urna roma dhathuwa, is enshrined here. Considering its location and the size, it is no doubt an architectural wonder of the ancient Sinhalese.
Arhat Mahinda, son of the Mauryan emperor, attained parinibbana on the 8th year of King Uttiya, when he was 68 years old, on the month of Assayaja. A stupa was built housing the relics of this great monk by King Uttiya, 2nd century BC.
The carving of the majestic five headed Cobra, indeed is a mystic view. It is said in the chronicles that arhat Mahinda had a bath at this pond. The Lion pond and the alms hall was fed by the waters of this pond.
This is the highest point of Mihintale. The original name meant Atul, which means, Inner, suggests that this stupa belongs to the inner temple. There are 600 steps towards the summit where a small stupa is built. The view up here is breath-taking.
Indikatu seya and Katu seya
These are two small stupas built on stone platforms. The basal rings are in stone and the dome is in brick. There were no relics of the Buddha or Arhats enshrined but only copper plaques bearing Mahayana stuttras that belongs to the 9th century AD. There are also remains of two ponds and five image houses.
This is known to be earliest dwellings of monks who led an ascetic life.
The mesmerizing beauty of the deep green forest, the dark waters of the pond and the serenity of nature is truly fascinating and perfect for the life of a yogi. A monastery consists of bathing houses, meditation halls, and cave shelters can be seen here.
Bell, fascinated by the enchanting nature of this place writes, ‘…a more perfect sanctuary for ‘the sons of Buddha’ could not have found anywhere throughout the length and breadth of Ceylon.’
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